Portrait by Jane Bown‘
, Pete Townshend as serious
or pretentious depends largely
on whether or not you concede
' that pop music is serious. I am
«persuadable on the point and
am certainly persuaded for "
so long as I am talking to- '
Townshend, here in the
rehearsal rooms where he' is preparing the West
End revival of his‘magnum opus, Tammy. Even
so, he sometimes loses me When he eXplains the
I meaning of the piece, and every now and again
I wonder if I don? t agree with the grafﬁto 1n the
lift that exclaims' ‘Tomrny Rot’. ~
Townshend’s group the Who were the first rock II
stars ever‘ to appear on an Observer magazine
' - cover. He has lost most of his hair since that
19605 distinction, but his nose seems, 'if anything,
to have increased in extent. He has said that his
career was bui1t on an ambition to persuade
people to love it and on thiseount he has .
succeeded, for neither he ,nor we would ‘
' presumably now wish it any smaller. But his
ambitions have grown with it: Townshend has
proved to be the most earnest person ever to
make a living smashing up guitars On stage.
. Yet though he takes his work seriously, he does
not assume it is itself serious. He judges it right
, that Ray Davies ofthe Kinks should win two
paragraphs 1n Donald Clarke’ 5 The RiseAnd Fall
OfPopuIar M 11510 while the Who get two derisory
sentences’. And what' 18 pop music anyway?
‘lt is amorphous,’ he says. ’but basically it
always has the samejob,whi1:h is to get you
through the day. And that seems to me to be a
profoundly important job; it is like fresh bread.’
But hadn' t art school and his manager Kit
Lambert, whose father was the classical musician
(lonstant Lambert, encouraged him to claim
I11 uch more for it?
‘Well why not? Why not have pain-au-chocolat
and fresh bread too’s"
‘My grandmother used to
walk around the streets in
very expensive fur coats,
Often with nothing on
underneath. The bizarre
thing 13 that my parents felt
, ifthey sent meta live with
this" woman would'-
eonpentrate her mind’I
8 OBSERVER LIFE 26 FEBRUAﬂY 1998
Pete ToWnshend tells Andrew Billen about Tommy and his real family drama
Tommy, whieh he wrote 28 years ago when he
was 22, may carry the burden of starting life as a
‘rock opera’ but 'it is as a musical that it has played
on BroadWay for two years and collected 24
awards. He IS happy with this recategorisation —
‘it is storytelling, fairly basic stuff— although he
, was incensed when years ago it played' 1n Vienna
and two musieolbgists told him it was not really I
an opeta. “‘Whaddya mean? Course it’s an
opera,Isa1d and they said: “We mean no ‘
t . offence. We just think it is more like a cantata
He laughs at this now yet he' 18 no less jealous
of us ownership since it has been reclassiﬁed.
He was' chagrined when reminded that he had
blocked'Lambert's script for the rndvie version,
yet is today no more willing to COncede partial '
paternity rights to Roger‘ Daltrey, the ﬁrst
I Tommy, Who has complained that Townshend
sold the family si1ver by reviving it.
‘He,’ 5 obviously entitled to. his opinion, but it's
3 a bit churlish and I think a lot of it COmes from a
‘bad place. Roger'had real problems with the fact
. that I’ d not involved him as consultant.1-Ie
believes deep down he created much of what _
Tommy 15., But it’ s an age- -old problem, you know.
Maﬁa Callas before she died laid claim to- several
operatic roles. .This is the’ ego of the diva. And I
he's a‘ rock diva. You know, at Wobdstock, he was
- immortalised; the long hair, the sunlight shining
in his face, singing: “See me, feel me, touch me,
' heal me' ’with a frilly shirt on. We were ﬁghting
women off him. He became not just a rock Icon
but a hugely sexual beingovernight.’
ITOMMY'S SUCCESSFUL resuscitation has .
redeemed and jestiﬁed almost 30 years of
Townshend's life. ‘It is the one thing that has ‘
driven me mad for such a long time and now it is
ﬁnally the one thing that will get me off the hook.’
When he says this you gather he is talking, not so
much about how the success will affect his place
in music history as something more personal. ,
'I‘he. 1.960s Tommy, the deai-dumb andblind boy
who gets his marbles back, wasas a metaphor for
'our own spiritual ignorance as westerners': the
'l‘ommy ol‘ the new libretto is much more rooted
in a family drama. Similarly, while 'l‘ownshe‘nd
can still rattle on about the importance of
accepting that ‘we live through what we deserve'
(which, excuse me, is nonsensieal, even ifit does
come from his late guru. Meher Babe), he is
much more interesting when talking about his
own i'amlly‘drama, ”which seems'to have started
when his parents sent him to live with his
gtandmothet in Broadstaits.
‘l was under seven 11111111 was unbelievably '
awful and traumatic because my grandmother
turned out to he completely harmy. She used to , ‘
hoard silver and fur coats from hot; 111 fair with this
rich intiuhtrlalist. He dumped her and-s-he lapsed
into insane giandioslty She used'to Walk 1110111111
the 1111 com in ver expensive l1II coats, 011011 with
nothing, 1111 11111le111e111h, and neighhoms would
take heI l)111:khon1e.",'lh1,1 bizarte thing is that my
pIIIents ielt Ii they sent 11111 to live with this
woman it would 111111111e11111ue heI mind. 1 11111111)
sit 11111lhetu my 11111111111 telling me that, iooking
11111 1ll1e1‘tly In the eye III late ")2 11111ls11111111ys'eli'
from leaping over the table and strangling her.’
The worst legacy of those 18 months, he says,
was bequeathed when he rammed home to
London:‘ It gave me the unfortunate idea I could
always escape. So I’ve been a bit of an escape
artist. You know, when life gets difﬁcﬂult my
tendency' 18 still to believe I can run away.’
Was touring an early example of that?
I .‘Touring was an early example of runningaway ,
that I‘eventually wanted to run away from,’ he . ‘
, laughs. ‘I hated it.1wake up every day and thank
~ God that I m not on the road with the Who. I
‘ mean literally. It’ s the ﬁrst thought that comes to I
I my mind: I“Oh God, I have to get up, but at least .
I’ m not in some small Midwestern town .
It IS fascinating whenhe elaborates and says
these days he uses his family as a means of
escape. If his family is a bolt hole, this irnplies .
that they are not at the centre of his life. Yet his
marriage to Karen, an edIucationalist. is 30 years.
old and they have two'gr'own-up daughters and '
son aged six. He says Karen's father was warned
she was marrying ‘a self-confessed drug user who
was violent, shallow and dangerous’, and so it
' proved. A'further’ disqualiﬁcation should have
been his alcoholism. He drank enormous
quantities, he says, in order to turn on the
feelings he had learnt to switch off during his
childhood. He stopped in 1982 but conned
‘ himself that he could ‘drink like a gentleman' aInd
. started again, with disastrous results,’ in 1993..
He calls 1993, the year he announced he wasin
‘a failing marriage’ and thathe Wasnft a ‘good
father or even a decent man’, a period-of insanity:
’It wasn't that I wasn't decent; it was that l was
insane. I did 22 Concorde. ﬂights, 30 trips to the
US and to four other countries. I made a record,
,put on two versions of Tommy. By the time I was
at the Young Vic doing Iron Man [the children's 4
musical he wrote with Ted Hughes] 1 was in bits,
absolutely In bits.’
Karen conﬁned him to the garden ﬂat of their
home in l‘wickenham and gradually ToWns‘hendI
1"ecoveled. ‘It has,’ he says of the marriage, ‘been
ptetty difﬁcult; it' s not easy at the moment; it’ s
not easy being In yet anotheI showbusiness
activity and, you k11'ow.talking about iamily and
talking about the past, going over it all overagain.’
She would prefer him to ,sit back, collect the
onaltles and make the occasional album?
‘She may well piefer that but she can ’t have
tl1111.1:11n she?’ 1
Instead he wants to mount a British pIodLIction
oi I’s‘yclzoIdeIeII1 I, the 199’ 5 concept album that
reinvented Julie Burchill as what surely she must 1
be (alIetionlecharacte1).A11dl1,cls w01 king on an
animation of Iron Man. I say it is good that the
[1011 Man liveth ,"despitet the bad notic es. “Yeah,
yeah,’ he 1151111111111— 1011110111111111111-1 last— adds:
'l1' s not 1111 the want 01 "11111' s iI1terl'ereI1e.‘e
l"l1e10 is an Iron Man-hke stiength lri .
'1‘ ownshend' s managing to haul ’l‘mnm‘y back both,
to 1:1 itical Iespectability 111111 petsonal relevance 1
Whether it ~01 l1e~w1ll11ve1 he lully 11111111191001]
by anyone but himsell ls 11.101111111111111;- '
’l'ommy opens 11111111111111 (1! (I111 SIm/lmbm y
'I‘IIemIe, SIIrI/‘IeshII/Iy/lII11/1I111,London WC2.